What’s Wrong with Being Confident?

Our society expects us to display confidence in order to succeed. Some people internalize this pressure much more than others, with young adults demonstrating high levels of the personality trait called effortlessly perfect self-presentation. Someone high in effortlessly perfect self-presentation not only feels a need to appear perfect, but also to appear to have achieved perfection naturally, without any reason for effort or self-doubt. News stories have suggested that pressures to appear effortlessly perfect are associated with mental health problems such as depression and anxiety in college students. However, little data actually exist on this issue.

The research question the personality lab has been studying is whether there may be a cost to always being encouraged to be confident when you are not feeling your best. We suspected that the need to present constant self-confidence may lead people to criticize and judge themselves for the negative emotions that they experience under stress, rather than approaching these situations with self-compassion. Self-compassion is the concept of being kind to yourself, practicing mindfulness, and reminding yourself that it is part of being human to have flaws and make mistakes. Most importantly, self-compassion implies that you not be too harsh on yourself, especially when you’re struggling.

In our study, we had participants fill out a number of personality questionnaires. Following this, participants were asked to complete a five-minute writing task in one of three conditions, where they were primed to think about the importance of self-confidence, self-compassion, or a neutral condition. The neutral control prompt involved writing about a place to eat around Gettysburg.

After the five minutes were up, participants were presented with a very difficult series of puzzles. The experimenter was required to sit alongside the participant in complete silence as the participant struggled with the puzzles. Shortly after, the participant completed a few more questionnaires about their feelings of self-compassion and mood at that moment.

After running more participants this summer, we started analyzing the data. First, we were required to do data coding, which consisted of deciding whether participants’ written responses to the priming task fulfilled our criteria for inclusion. Many participants had to be excluded from data analysis because their responses were not relevant to the prompt.

For our data analysis, we ran regression analyses to statistically test the significance of the interaction between priming condition and effortlessly perfect self-presentation predicting change in state self-compassion after the puzzle task. We found a significant two-way interaction; the results are presented in the figure below:

As shown in the graph, there is a statistically significant interaction between priming condition and effortlessly perfect self-presentation predicting state self-compassion. Specifically, participants who were low in effortlessly perfect self-presentation showed no significant differences in state self-compassion, regardless of priming condition.  However, among participants who were high in effortlessly perfect self-presentation, those who were primed to focus on the importance of self-confidence showed significantly lower state self-compassion compared to those participants who were primed to focus on self-compassion or food (neutral).

These results have a few implications. For one, this empirically shows that when you remind a person who strives to appear effortlessly perfect that it is important to be confident in themselves to succeed, the end result is that they beat themselves up and blame themselves for not being confident enough when success doesn’t come easily.

Ultimately, this shows that placing too much emphasis on self-confidence can come at a cost to  self-compassion. While popular belief proposes that self-confidence is related to success, leadership, and more competence, our research shows that it does not prepare you well for coping with setbacks. This is particularly relevant in college students, in which they feel pressured to exert confidence for success and are otherwise seen as inferior if they do not exhibit this self-confidence. College students are likely to face failure, rejection, and other very challenging situations in their careers, so it is important that we emphasize more self-compassion than self-confidence to better prepare them to cope.

Personality Lab Research Assistants:

Cindy Campoverde

Jackson Guyton

Stella Nicolaou


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